Novice ears or unrealistic expectations?

I'm having a serious case of buyer's remorse.

Up until yesterday, my system consisted of an Arcam Solo CD with an iPod Rdock and B&W 683s. The sound was very nice, but I often felt the bass was a bit boomy and the mids somewhat hidden, especially at the lower volumes I typically listen. This was especially apparent when listening to TV/movies. I would have to crank up the volume to hear dialog, only to be blasted out of my seat by explosions, a loud commercial, etc. Music tended to be bottom heavy, to the point where I would spend more time worrying about my neighbors than enjoying the music.

(Just to address certain advice I might receive in advance, I live in a tiny NYC apartment. Due to space constraints, my speaker placement is set in stone. I have moderately priced cabling and am not looking to buy more. Tweaking bass/treble response may work for some songs, but not others...I prefer to leave them flat.)

I got it into my head, via web research only, that a separate power amp would help flesh out the mids, tighten up the bass and generally even things up. In my mind's eye/ear, I envisioned an amp enabling me to listen at low volumes, but achieve a fuller, more well rounded sound.

Given the tiny size of my apartment, Class D amps seemed to fit the bill. After talking to a couple of dealers, I swayed myself into buying a Jeff Rowland 102, and did so rather impulsively. I love the design BTW. The right thing to do of course, would have been to spend time auditioning amps, ABXing them with my Solo, etc. But I have an impulsive/instinctual streak, which more often than not serves me well. Unfortunately, it didn't serve me so well this time.

I got the 102 home and set it up, using the Arcam's pre-outs, bypassing the Arcam's amp altogether. I don't want to mess with bi-amping.

I was immediately rewarded with a nice fat right channel hum that I eventually narrowed down to my cable TV. My temporary fix for that was to unscrew the cable just enough to stop the hum without cutting the signal.

Anyhow, back to the amp. My second surprise was that I had to turn the volume up somewhat higher with the 102 to achieve the same listening level as the Arcam. I told myself I should attribute this to the 102 having a tighter sound. Hmm.

As I listened to familiar tracks I had played prior to hooking up the 102, I was was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed. I was sidewhelmed. The sound is still great, but I was under the assumption that the difference would be night and day. There is certainly no loss in quality, but the contrast is more like late afternoon to early dusk.

Bass is a tiny bit less boomy. My floor doesn't shake quite as much during louder passages. But this seems to be at the cost of those occasional satisfying low dips, for example, in the pluck of an upright bass. Soundstage seems slightly wider, but only slightly. Highs have a less piercing quality by a small degree.

All in all these differences are nice, and a small step in the right direction, but not $1800 worth of nice, to me anyway, especially when I factor in the grief my girlfriend is going to give me when she comes home Sunday and sees this amp sitting there. When I replaced my B&W 602.5s with 683's, she was not happy, until I played them for her. The difference was remarkable and she went from unhappy to giddy. With the Rowland 102, I would have to try to explain the subtle differences, as A/B testing is not practical. And if I can barely hear the differences, she will certainly not be able to at all.

My feeling is it takes a VERY analytical ear to ascertain the differences between the Solo's built in amp and the 102.

My primary source of music is the iPod, with 320kbps files, via the Rdock. My old roommate, a long time audio dealer here in NYC, who has worked in nearly every high end shop, as well as for Mark Levinson, says that the iPod is the weak link, and that no amp, be it $1800 or $18,000 will do much to improve the sound. I defer to his experise, but I swear some of my AAC/mp3 files are all but identical in sound quality to the CDs they came from. He suggested using a CD in the Solo to compare the sound instead of the iPod. This makes sense on paper, but the fact is 99.9% of my listening will be done via the iPod.

I called the shop I bought the 102 from and inquired about a return, fully expecting to pay a restocking fee. I was politely told I was basically stuck with the amp unless I wanted a store credit. I don't really want to deal with that. So now I'm trying to sell it.

My question is, do I give up the search for an amp, or go for something more powerful and cheaper, like maybe a used 200W Acurus? I'm obviously a novice...

Another dealer, who sold me the B&W 683s said the right amp would "open them right up". That's enticing, but after reading the Richard Clark Amp Challenge, I'm beginning to wonder if I should just walk away and cut my losses. Maybe all the adjectives applicable to a higher end amp are just lost on my ears.

As a side note, the Rowland dealer (the shop's owner) suggested I invite my old roommate (who used to work there) over to "show me how to listen to the Rowland". I don't think I've heard anything quite so ridiculous from a retailer in my life.

Thanks for reading.

May not be what you want to hear, but I'd agree with your friend that the ipod will be a limiting factor and, furthermore, that amplification with that kind of price tag is kind of a waste within your system.

I would also guess that, also within the overall context of your system, the Arcam amplification would be up to pretty decent standards. Instead of spending that kind of money on the amplifier I would have experimented with some fairly cheap tweaks to try and tailor the sound.
Thanks for your input. Actually, I'd rather hear what you've said than something to the effect of "give it time" or "break it in", or the like. Funny though, how honest advice that involves NOT spending more money always seems to show it's face AFTER money has been spent. :)

If I do manage to sell the amp without a huge loss, I'll just chalk it up to money spent on a tweak...a tweak that empirically proves I don't need it.
novice ears or unrealistic expectations?...maybe both.

you have to give these changes time to settle in and months of casual and serious listening to make an informed decision. If you continue to buy impulsively, you'll probably make the same mistakes over and over again. Also, if you're bound by a static speaker placement, it may never get any better no matter how much you spend, or on what.

Regarding the dealer return policy, that's something that should have been discussed before purchase. I think their offer to give you store credit (assuming for full purchase price) was very generous. I'm sure they would have been willing to let you listen several times before purchase.

Slow down and enjoy what you have!
I had the same problem with running moives through my system it got so loud and the deep bass shook everything. Running an equalizer would be the ticket. You can increase the mids and lower the bass so that you can hear dialogue. Though for music I prefer just straight playback the shorter the signal path the better.
I also think your ipod is the weak link in your system.
I bought that same amp used from a store near here for $1,000.

At that price it was almost a steal, anyway I brought it home and connected and wasn't that impressed. I had it powering my then B&W 603/S3's

I didn't notice any improvement in sound, the bass didn't sound anymore fuller or different, midrange actually sounded worse than with my stock NAD receiver and the highs seemed a bit more accentuated but they were borderline ear bleeding.

I returned it at the end of the week as that was how long I was given to evaluate it. My speakers were already 2 yrs old and well broken in at that time and the amp was supposedly 10-11 months.

I later bought a NAD C272 from the 'gon for $500 without putting much thought into it...that was kinda silly of me but at $500 I didn't stand much to loose if I chose to resell it.

Hooked that up and wow its addition made a huge difference that was immediately noticeable. Bass became fuller, hit lower and was in more control. The rest of the presentation also sounded more alive. The noise levels also went down and I was able to listen to my music louder than before w/o much fatigue.

A few suggestions:

Try a more traditional solid-state amp (e.g. arcam, nad, rotel). Dealers don't usually mind loaning out their equipment if you leave your credit card info with them.

Also try playing with the port plugs that were included with your speakers. They are there to accommodate for less than ideal installation...try one or both and see if that lessens the degree of bass for you.
In general, there's more difference to be had (for better or for worse) in changing speakers than in changing amps. The typical audible difference between speakers is probably at least an order of magnitude greater than the typical audible difference between amplifiers of generally similar distortion characteristics.

On the other hand, some amps (such as SETs or OTLs) can sound significantly different, and with such amps loudspeaker compatibility is very important in getting the benefits offered by the amplifier topology.

G_georgi , awesome feedback. (and thanks to everyone else too) Your experience is almost identical to mine.

I have tried the port plugs on my 683s. I think I have some sort of psychoacoustic block towards tweaking things like bass/treble response and adding port plugs, because every time I do it, I keep A/B-ing for different songs and never end up with the same level of satisfaction twice. I end up obsessing more than listening. For that reason, I prefer to leave things like that alone.

Interesting that you recommend an Arcam. That was my initial choice of amp, given that I already have the Solo. But I emailed Arcam directly and got some odd advice, or perhaps not odd at all.

They told me, in no uncertain terms, that the best way to use one of their amps with a Solo would be to bi-amp. And they made it very clear that they were not talking about active bi-amping, but merely plugging the LF into an amp, and the HF into the crossover tweaks at all. This seemed to be in direct conflict with everything I've read or heard on the matter.

They also told me flat out that adding a FMJ P25 or Diva amp and bypassing the Solo's amp would result in very little noticeable difference.

I think I'm done for now. No more amps. No more tweaks. No more.

See you in a few days. :)
Your biggest problem is speaker placement. Declaring it as "in stone" dooms anything you might do. It sounds like they're slightly too close to the rear wall and perhaps the corners. Usually a move of only 6" to a foot will get you out of the bass node that's ruining both the bass and midrange. You can't EQ yourself out of such a problem, you have to move the speakers.

I have a non-serious listening position for my speakers and then for serious listening I move the out and then back when I'm finished. Works like a charm. You gotta move 'em.

Your friend that said the Ipod is the problem is correct. In several weeks the Wadia 170 Itransport will be available. It will give you a full digital output because it has the Apple code and has a Dac.
Once you have a full signal you will be able to analyze you system and maybe even enjoy it.
My guess you might find that your speakers are very lackluster.
In general, I think, when you have an Ipod and -possibly - TV and local radio stations as a source in a small room, the best possible solution is an active speaker. There is sure that the amp and the speaker is well matched and well controlled and possibly less sensitive to placement. For example, now, there are a number of small quad active speakers between 600-800 USD on the audiogon. If you have more than one source, just buy the cheapest preamplifier with remote controller and you are done. I guess, even, you can get out money of the hifi by selling the arcam, the rowland and the BM, and possibly you have a better controlled and more even sound.
Can you borrow a tube amplifier from your dealer? Is so, I recommend giving it a try. You may or may not like it, but I imagine it will "open" up the sound in comparison to what you have tried. I do not think that "tweaks" will get you what you are asking for. If tubes sound better to your ear, then as Atmasphere has alluded, your next step would be to ask about some optimization in accord with your retailer's policies. The suggestion by your retailer that your friend train you how to listen is IMHO part of the problem with high end audio. It is rubbish. Trust your ears. Once you finish this deal, look for another retailer and another source of audio advice. Good luck, Jeff

Your comments are quite rational - apart from the TV hum from the cable connection all your observations are exactly as I would expect. The principal benefit from a big power amp is NOT sonics but MORE will not and should not be night and day...a slightly tighter bass and more headroom is al you can expect to notice at low levels. It will not fix the "BBC Dip" in your speakers for that you need speakers with a flatter midrange response (what you may not have been told by the dealers is that flat midrange type speakers are rare - because many audiophiles prefer a laid back sound with enhanced bass and treble...boom boom tizz) need to change your speakers. I would recommend satellites and a sub for an apartment with space/placement restrictions but above all - if you can;t hear dialog and are deafened by boomy bass then get a speaker without a recessed midrange...
Just an update...

Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to respond.

Some of you suggested new or different equipment was in order. My more financially responsible better half would absolutely have my head if I got new speakers or a tube amp. I can't afford them anyhow. The B&W 683s are more than enough speaker for an iPod based system IMO anyhow. And having already jumped headfirst into an amp and landing on my face would indicate that I don't know enough about this stuff to be exploring the even trickier and more finicky world of tubes.

All this said, I think I've had a bit of an epiphany today. I spent the morning ripping some Stevie Wonder CDs into Apple Lossless and replacing their 320kbps counterparts on my iPod. Nothing shows off a system like "All Day Sucker" or "Boogie on Reggae Woman"!

I played a couple of favorite tracks through the Arcam's amp. The lossless tracks showed a considerable improvement over the 320kbps files. I decided to take the comparison to the next level and hook the Rowland 102 back up.

It's very possible I've just lulled myself into these observations, in a psychoacoustic attempt to salvage the situation, but I feel I am now hearing some differences.

With the Arcam, highs on the lossless tracks sounded very bright. Cymbals had a distinct bite...I might even say a bit harsh. Louder passages sort of jumped through my body, causing me to sit up a bit, and sometimes even instictively reach for the remote to turn it down. All in all, I'd describe the highs as somewhat angsty.

The lows were very low indeed, but as I have experienced before, they were somewhat out of control. There were booms out of character with the rest of music, and sometimes even out of sync.

The mids sounded best, but were somewhat swallowed by the problems with the highs and lows.

After hooking up the Rowland, these lossless files are making a more and more convincing case for sticking with this amp.

The entire sound spectrum sounds more cohesive. True, the bass is not as sweepingly deep, but it's more in keeping with the rest of the music. It doesn't sound like a broken arrow on its own growling booming mission. The highs have lost much of their bite. Cymbals are not quite as shimmery or dimensional, but at the same time they're no where nearly as distracting. The angst is gone, both figuratively and literally.

Best of all, the mids I'm hearing seem to have been unleashed from the shackles of overly sharp highs and booming bass. Piano has more authority. Stevie Wonder's voice has moved to the forefront of the image. Before it literally sounded as if the band was playing in front of him. Now he sounds more like he's backed by the band.

Overall, I'd describe the sound as warmer. I've read that this is a signature sound of JRDG amps. It's nice to actually be able to relate to what that means.

One visual representation keeps coming to mind in comparing the sound...the slap of a racquetball hitting a wall (without the Rowland), and, with the Rowland, the sound of the same ball hitting the wall, but with the ball wrapped in a thin layer of very fine cashmere. Another image that comes to mind is the sound of splashing in a pool of water, vs. the sound of splashing around in a pool of mineral oil.

Not once since hooking it back up have I had that edgy feeling of needing to turn it down lest I offend the neighbors. Nor have I been jarred by a louder passage.

In a perfect world, I think I might prefer a slightly crisper representation than the 102 offers, but without regressing back to the harshness of the Arcam. Some have indicated that maybe a Bel Canto S300 might offer this. It never ends does it?

Regardless, I am happier than I was this time yesterday. Unfortunately, the majority of my music is not re-rippable into lossless, as it exists as digital files only. I worry that lower quality mp3s will not react as nicely to the warmth imposed by the Rowland.

Add to this a new problem I've discovered (which turns out to be all but ubiquitous amongst iPod Classic owners playing lossless files). The Classic, in addition to having a cheaper DAC chip than its predecessor, also has a small cache; 32mb vs 64mb. Several times today, listening to lossless files over 32mb, the iPod paused itself, in order to cache the rest of the file. :(

Nice report. You equipment is indeed too good for regular mp3s, as you've clearly discovered.

Positioning the speakers for serious listening will smooth out the both the highs and bass. You really can't avoid that. Anyway, you've made a step in the right direction. Sorry about needing to replace your mp3 library, but I'm afraid that you've hit on a pretty common ephiphany. (Don't listen to a good vinyl system, lest you have another epiphany).

Welcome to audiophilism. ;-)

The trouble with audio is thier is no end, Your at the beginning, I did the same thing as you. I changed my nad amp for a bryston at the time.I thought the sound was thin but it was just a lot clearer in every way, i have now moved on.My advise is to get the best source, forget mp3 50% loss of information,each part of the puzzle should be of the same quality expecially the source because thats the music after all.
I would think a fuller sounding amp like Musical Fidelity A308 would work better with B&W. If you can find one cheaper than the JRD amp. But your source is the weak link IMHO.
Have you been to In Living Stereo? They have some nice smaller speakers from Epos, Totem, and Rega. Any of those 3 would fix the brightness you're hearing from the B&W's.
Won't cost you anything to audition.
Good luck riding the merry-go-round.
A MF isn't going to sound any better than a Rowland (one of the best possible amps and a good match for his speakers).

Improve the source and get the speakers in the right place.

Blasphemous suggestion - would it be possible to put the speakers on casters so that you can roll them out away from the walls when seriously listening? You could roll them right back away when you're done. A few small pieces of tape could indicate "best" position for repeatable results.

IMO, the best way to achieve happiness (in audio) is: Know the room and its likely requirements. You wouldn't put monitors in a concert hall and overloading is probably worse as problems go. This applies to not only "which speakers in which room", but where they are placed in the room to properly and evenly load your space. Honestly, those speakers probably want to be 4 feet out into the room. Shoving ported speakers into corners is reinforcing the bass-heavy attitude, which will not be fixed with different amps. It's an acoustic issue, not one of current/drive.

Once speakers are selected, proper amplifier matching is critical, but again this isn't your issue.

If you had ability to EQ just the bass you could be in business. That's more penalty in complexity and cost though and will steal a little transparency. Based on what you've said I think it would be a worthy tradeoff but not a free lunch.

Ultimately, a monitor/sub setup is probably the most flexible but of course speaker changes are a pain in the backside.
I drove a set of B&W 602s3 with many amps, I think the one that sounded the most musical was an older NAD 3020A,they were just made for each other,very full clean sound with a very nice mid range, Not the series 20 version, just 3020A
I would bet it would mate well with your newer B&Ws and its more than enough power, and only 150 bucks used.just my two cent,good luck.
DcStep I would agree but he said the Rowland 102 was a digital class "D" amp. Doesn't matter who makes class "D", it's still digital.

Disclaimer: I have not personally heard the amp
03-03-08: Cdc said:
"DcStep I would agree but he said the Rowland 102 was a digital class "D" amp. Doesn't matter who makes class "D", it's still digital.

Disclaimer: I have not personally heard the amp"

Actually Class "D" is not "digital", instead it has a "switching" power supply. Class D amps have been around longer than digital (PCM) and have nothing to do with what we think of as digital. They're fed an analog signal, just like class A or AB amplifiers.

Most people that hear the Rowland love what they hear. I, for one, think it's one of the very best sounding amps available for speakers that like high current and high damping factors.

See this discussion of class D vs. A and AB if you're interested in understand a little more about that particular issue:
I'm no engineer but I know Class D has nothing to do with the power supply. There are lots of Class D amps with linear or even battery supplies.

See Wikipedia for a proper explanation.
Have your friend set your room up. Put the ipod in your pocket and decide on another source. A server with real files?

What ever you do, don't buy a turntable!